2024 Turkish Elections: Surprise and Contingency

For the first time since 2002, the AKP, led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, did not finish first in an election. What accounts for this shift? And what lies ahead?

On Sunday, March 31st 2024, the Turkish populace headed to the polls for the 2024 Turkish local elections, taking place throughout the country’s 81 provinces. Shuffling through stuffy classrooms and other voting stations, morale was low for the Turkish opposition, which had been dealt a heavy blow in the 2023 general elections. However, on the night of the 31st, huddled behind their television screens, a new image of Turkey emerged in front of our very eyes. I wish not to go into depth about the results here, there are plenty of electoral breakdowns in English language media. However, I do find merit in identifying certain key trends, especially transnational ones, and then situating them within the general Turkish context and global democratic movements, to illustrate the overall significance of this election in Turkey and beyond.

The Results in Brief

Firstly, it is important to highlight how groundbreaking this election was. For the first time since 2002, the AKP, led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, did not finish first in an election. The Democratic People’s Party (CHP), the centre-left party of Ataturk and the current main opposition, won with 37.77% of the vote, while the AKP received only 35.49%. This signified the culmination of a shift within Turkish politics: not only did the CHP protect its rule in the key constituencies of Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir, but it also won large swaths of Anatolia, including cities such as Balıkesir, which has not had a local CHP government since 1950. Furthermore, Adıyaman, a Southeastern Anatolian city with a majority Kurdish population and often heralded as the ‘AKP’s castle’, was lost to the CHP

Recep Tayyip Erdogan / Image: Russian Presidential Press And Information Office (distributed via CC BY 4.0)

What accounts for the shift?

Commentators believe that many would-be AKP voters protested the current government by not turning up to the polling stations, with voter turnout dropping from 88% last May to 79% this year. A close ally of the AKP, the ultra-nationalist Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) also suffered losses from the trend. However, the erosion of their votes can also be accounted for by the impressive performance of the New Welfare Party (YRP), a hardline Islamist splinter party headed by the grandson of Necmettin Erbakan, the father of contemporary Turkish Islamism. The YRP grew its share of votes from 3% in 2019 to 6%, and contested many AKP-held provinces in the Southeast, winning two of them. The reason for this shift towards the YRP will be explored later as we investigate the role Erdogan's Israel policy and Palestinian solidarity movements in Turkey played in solidifying the local election results.

As in almost every electoral cycle, the main cause of the current shift in voting patterns, whether it be actual votes or the absence of them, can be largely assigned to economics. The promise that Erdogan gave in his reelection campaign in 2023 of slowing down inflation and getting the economy back on track did not come to fruition. Runaway inflation, soaring cost of living and a decline in the standard of living, especially for pensioners, led to widespread dissatisfaction among Turkish voters. For context, in 2019, one US dollar was equal to five Turkish liras. In April 2024, five years later, one US dollar can buy you 32.5 Turkish liras. Additionally, the deteriorating economy hit the middle and lower classes especially hard, shaking the traditional core of the AKP’s support.

Yet, it would be an inadequate assessment to fully blame economic considerations for the weakening of the AKP’s electoral hegemony. Turkish media reported that Erdogan told his party executives that his party had ‘lost its soul’. Theatrics aside, the AKP’s ideological rot has definitely started to be felt by its voter base, especially in its now-hollow populist and Islamist rhetoric (more on this later in the discussion on Palestine). The AKP’s veer towards nationalism since 2016, to keep the MHP within its coalition, also alienated the more religious sectors of the population which constituted its traditional bases of support, as well as Kurdish and other ethnic minority votes. One common charge was that the AKP selected unpopular mayoral candidates for their local elections, expecting the party’s popularity to make up for the candidates’ lack of substance. It seems that the popularity of President Erdogan did not easily translate to the popularity of the AKP. 

The full victory speech delivered by Ozgur Ozer, leader of the CHP.

While the AKP was plagued with failures, the CHP’s electoral appeal was growing. Two factors can attest to this: firstly, the growing popularity of the Istanbul mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu and Ankara mayor Mansur Yavaş, with their non-divisive rhetoric and populist welfare policies, such as opening ‘public kitchens’ which provide cheap meals, was capitalised on by the CHP. Additionally, the change of party leadership from the unpopular Kemal Kilicdaroglu to Ozgur Ozel also emphasised a change within the party. Ozel, aged 49, is much younger than Kilicdaroglu (who is 75), and is thus a lot closer, personally and ideologically,  to the two popular mayors Imamoglu and Yavas. The new spirit of the party post-leadership change is best described by Ozel’s victory speech. He proclaimed the CHP was successful in pursuing coalitionary politics which united democrats across ideological lines, bringing in secular democrats, social democrats, conservative/traditionalist democrats, and Kurdish democrats within the folds of the same party. 

“This is very [hopeful], as a main charge levied against the CHP was its polarizing and elitist nature.”

The Issue of Palestine

The YRP, the new Islamist party, campaigned on a strict platform of cutting ties to Israel, in the wake of Israel’s assault on Gaza since the October 7 attacks. Their strategy of focusing on the conflict in Gaza worked, as they were able to deny or weaken the victories of the AKP in the local election – while the AKP presents a ‘tough on Israel’ approach to Palestine with Erdogan continuously affirming his support, beyond rhetoric and symbolic activism, the AKP’s actual policy differs. 

Trade between Israel and Turkey reached $2.5 billion during the five months that followed October 7th, and over 65% of Israel’s steel is imported from Turkey. Not only are there expansive trade ties between Israel and Turkey, but the IDF also maintains ties with the Turkish military, training on Turkish territory multiple times a year. Since October 7th, protests have been erupting in AKP rallies, calling to end trade with Israel. The specific section of the population which has mobilised the most in support of Palestine, namely the more pious and religious sections of society, also constitutes the AKP’s main voter base. Frustration with the ruling party’s inaction, and in some cases, direct ties to trade with Israel, was reflected in voting behaviour, with either shifts towards the Islamist YRP, or ‘protest votes’ where one writes ‘end trade with Israel’ or ‘Free Palestine’ on the ballot, yet does not give a viable vote. 

Recep Tayyip Erdogan meeting with Israeli President Isaac Herzog in March 2022. / Image: Haim Zach, Government Press Office of Israel (distributed via CC BY-SA 3.0)

While Erdogan’s Israel policy did not cost him the election, many different factors worked in conjunction to frame the current electoral map, and it would be foolish to deny its role. On April 7th 2024, a week after the elections, a protest was held in Istanbul calling for Turkey to sever its trade with Israel. The protest was met with teargas and repression, illustrating how the party could turn against its own constituents.

This example is especially instructive in highlighting the ideological corner that the AKP is slowly heading towards. During the first decade of its rule, it was able to build up its hegemony through talks of EU accession, democratisation, and liberalisation of the public sphere through the inclusion of Kurds and pious Sunnis who were often sidelined by secularist elites. By building this ideological shell, the AKP was able to pass packages on top of packages of neoliberal reforms. However, following the turn to authoritarianism ushered in by the crisis of the 2013 Gezi Protests and the failed 2016 coup d’etat, the AKP’s ideological mask is slowly slipping to reveal what it truly is: a neoliberal project made palatable through identity politics. What will happen as these rhetorical masks continue to slip, as the bodies of Palestinians continue to mount in Gaza? It is definitely interesting to note how the quest for justice in Palestine is translating into the questioning of authoritarianism within the international community. 

What lies ahead?

Even though the CHP and other opposition parties came out with resounding successes, this does not mean that the AKP took defeat without a fuss. The most prominent example of this, not mentioned in Anglophone media, was the judicial contestation of the Van local elections. Van is a majority Kurdish city situated in deep Southwestern Turkey. It has traditionally voted for pro-minority rights parties, sometimes called Kurdish parties, such as the HDP, YSP, and many other iterations (since they often are subject to government closures). In the recent elections, Van was won by a landslide by the DEM Party (the new name of the YSP).

Cihan Tugal, a Professor of Sociology at UC Berkeley, argues that the CHP’s ability to show solidarity with the ‘social opposition’, and coalition-building within it, will make or break the next couple of years: if the CHP can suppress its ugly habit of turning on minority citizens, then real change might happen. He offers an especially insightful analysis and prognosis of the current Turkish political conjecture. In his analysis published in the Evrensel Gazette, he approaches the win with a critical lens. In asking what the ‘Imamoglu Project’, which the CHP’s vision rests upon, truly means, he asserts that it is merely a reformulation of the AKP’s early 2000s vision – Imamoglu-ite politics pursues a joint vision of ending Turkish ‘culture wars’ of religiosity and secularism, while embracing an open pro-Western politic, cushioned by social governmentalism (a direct translation of Tugal’s Turkish word ‘sosyal belediyecilik’), a strategy eerily similar to that of the early AKP.

The crux of his pessimistic vision lies in his analysis of the coalition-building character of the CHP. Rather than sliding leftwards and incorporating labour politics into its vision, the CHP instead underscores its democratic and liberal identity politics against a far-right identity politic, by integrating elite and minority voices. Tugal believes that this coalitionary politics is built on shaky foundations, and that it may get some wins, but will not last. Finally, he believes that for true democracy to exist within Turkey, a labour politics that prioritises working-class and minority interests must first be built, and the cycle of identity politics must be broken. 


In the years leading up to the 2028 Turkish general elections, especially in light of the recent events in Palestine and beyond, will Turkey become a beacon of re-democratization for the region and the world, against all the rising Modis, Trumps, and Orbans? Or will Turkey keep its rank among the world’s authoritarian states? This election was incredibly important not just for Turkey, but for all states suffering from authoritarian resurgence: Turkey has, to a point, proven that with the proper grassroots organising, strides can indeed be made to restore democracy.


Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of The PublicAsian.